14 stories for 14 years
Erin Manning: Towards an Ecology of Practice
The necessity of rethinking life in the context of an ecology of practice cannot be understated. We are at an ecological, environmental, political impasse.
(This project) seeks to attend to these issues, crafting a mode of thought that might begin to address where the human fits within the problematic of existence today.
Fritjof Capra: On Story As Relationship
Bateson's style of presentation was an essential and intrinsic part of his teaching. His central message was that relationships are the essence of the living world, and that we need a language of relationships to understand and describe it.
One of the best ways to do so, in his view, is by telling stories.
Homage to Gregory Bateson by Fritjof Capra
Lyndal Jones: On Selecting A Subject For An Artwork
Here’s a proposition for you
... that the most powerful way to rethink...where the human fits within the problematic of existence today as Manning writes, is to create a life that addresses this lived problematic experientially.
And to do so in the public gaze, as a work of art.
In this case, by purchasing a house in a small country town and turning that experience into an ongoing art action.
It has to be said that the purchasing of a house is a large and hopeful business. Particularly if it is to become an artwork.
A leap of faith one might say, as the constraints inherent in the property chosen (size, cost, history, place, a particular presence for instance) will shape the artwork it becomes.
Watford House in Avoca, with its two storeys, was both highly visible and unusual in an Australian countryside largely populated by single storey dwellings.
Here, where land was once plentiful, only the wealthy would build ‘up’.
That this dilapidated old house facing the river of a small country town in Victoria offered fantasies of such wealth and glamour was clear from the numbers of cars that would stop to view it. It clearly had presence.
And it was to be found in a little country town, too far from the city to have become fashionable.
It was thus somewhere where the introduction of an art project might perhaps be welcomed by those not interested in sporting activity...
An Immigrant House The house also had a notable past.
Brought by ship from Hamburg as numbered planks during the gold rush, then assembled in the main street as accommodation for the pub, it was sold 20 years later when the pub needed to expand and rolled down the hill to the current site.
Watford House was thus itself an immigrant that had arrived in Australia by boat in 1852 and was now sitting on land that had been stolen in the late eighteenth century from the Jaara people.
By 2005, after the Howard Government had demonised those refugees arriving by boat for several years, that paranoia was extending itself to all immigrants.
In 2003, Ghassan Hage called this the “sensitivity of thieves”. He wrote "Australians are willing to fear the threat of strangers because we know this land has ALREADY been stolen.”
It seemed that Watford House, in its travels and current site, might provide a quietly potent challenge to the fear that Ghassan Hage articulated so powerfully.
If it could be repaired, opened, generate alternatives for a new interactive ecology, this house could become simultaneously both proposition for ecological possibility and provocation that challenged the ‘sensitivity of thieves’ through acts of generosity.
On Testing The Great Australian Preoccupation
Because the project would necessarily be long term, involving extensive repairs, the house would need to owned rather than rented. But, to be purchased, it had to be cheap.
And it was cheap, having been officially declared ‘beyond repair’. This presented a nightmare of hard work ahead but also the prospect of refashioning the house as an ecological model of possibility.
What was unexpected though was the level of perturbation that the very act of purchasing the house created.
With an unerring artist’s instinct I had blundered into the most conflict-riven of Australian obsessions - that of property ownership.
So, to many, this project was a con. After all, the only reason to purchase property was as an investment or as a holiday home wasn't it?
The house thus immediately revealed itself to be the perfect provocation – the subject for an address to not only a different way of living but also a different way of thinking about housing itself.
On Waiting — A Strategy That Got Out Of Hand
As my art projects occur in long series, I have always regarded the time between them to be a time of waiting. Waiting for the next project to take hold.
But this project has itself been one of waiting.
The South African curator Okwei Enwezor began to focus in his exhibition on what he called The Artist as Producer in Times of Crisis....
When viewing this project in this light there can be seen to have been many artworks-as-activities - visiting international artists, community activities and exhibitions on and off site.
But it is also possible to see that they have contributed to what has become a know way of working.
I confess that I now recognize them to be part of waiting for something other, something that might alter my own consciousness profoundly.
It’s not to say that the project’s subtitle: Art, Place and Climate Change is not a serious focus but rather that the activities that have characterized the project have either become the artwork despite myself, OR that there has been something deeper, something other...
The Vegetable Garden With Norie and Marie
Norie asked “What are you waiting for exactly?” “To discover what it is that I am doing here”, I found myself saying.
I had begun to feel that all of the actions to date had been undertaken to reassure others that something was happening.
All those artworks, the many residencies for other artists, the historically sound and environmentally experimental repairs to the buildings and grounds, the community projects I had led were really all part of waiting...
And then Maria began talking about the house as a challenge to the current international obsession with growth as essential for healthy economies.
Here was a beginning...
A few nights later, I woke to find the radio still on with a woman speaking of alternatives to growth economies. Of exchange and barter, of different living arrangements, of adaptation and reconstruction and sharing of labour and technologies and equipment.
Soon after, I noticed how irritated I became when an artist friend showed me the graphics for the promotion of an event at the house.
Suddenly the realization was there in the language. Events were not to be at Watford House as she had written in all innocence. They were to be with Watford House.
So here it was.
The house was not to be seen as a backdrop to activities, it was to be the subject.
As it had been in an inchoate way since I had first imagined when I identified its immigrant history.
And, as the anthropologist Gregory Bateson suggested, it would be in the ever-ongoing relationships between the house and all the other elements, including plants, animals, humans, the weather, time, place that other ecological relationships might be found.
And, furthermore, as Ghassan Hage had noted, there was a clear relationship between our current inter-connections and our responses and silences around our historical inter-actions.
About Bringing Teresa To Avoca
I had a dear friend Teresa Brennan, an eminent Lacanian academic with whom I stayed when I went to Cambridge to study Darwin’s notebooks in a former life.
Teresa has since died in Florida under puzzling and suspicious circumstances.
In a bizarre outcome of her death, Justice Marcus Einfeld was sent to jail in Sydney because he claimed she had been driving his car when it was caught for speeding. But she had been dead at that stage for 2 years. She thus became ‘famous’ in a different way, for the wrong reason.
I want to bring her memory to Avoca for something altogether more personal. To re-position her memory through her generosity, enabled through her academic reputation in Cambridge.
What she did was simple, but it had a profound effect. One afternoon while I was in Cambridge she invited Gillian Beer, a fellow academic, to afternoon tea as she knew we had both been studying Darwin’s notebooks.
Gillian told me about a book she had written on Darwin’s effect on literature in the England of his time. I later purchased the book and a couple of paragraphs in the Introduction had a profound effect on my thinking.
I saw Gillian again last year at a lecture she was giving in London. (She is now Dame Gillian Beer DBE and regarded as one of the world’s great literary scholars. Because of our ongoing mutual care about Teresa, despite this pre-eminence, I was able to talk to her of the effect on my own thinking of her early recognition of the implications of Darwin’s research. Teresa would have been pleased.
Gillian Beer From Darwin's Plots
Precisely because we live in a culture dominated by evolutionary ideas, it is difficult for us to recognize their imaginative power in our daily readings of the world. We need to do so. ...
He ...(Darwin)... was telling a new story against the grain of the language available to tell it in. And, as it was told, the story itself proved not to be single or simple. It was, rather, capable of being extended or reclaimed into a number of conflicting systems.
One of the persistent impulses in interpreting evolutionary theory has been to domesticate it, to colonise it with human meaning, to bring man back to the centre of its intent.
Novelists, with their particular preoccupation with human behavior in society, have recast Darwin’s ideas in a variety of ways to make them seem to single out man.”
Gillian Beer, Darwin’s Plots, Ark Paperbacks, London UK 1983
On The Difficulties of Storing Art and Grotowski Comes to Town
Sometimes I remember that the reason I started the project in Avoca was because of what I saw as the obscene commodification of art with the complicity of artists as we sat like personal prizes at the dinner parties of collectors who had purchased our works, or tried not to express our anger at dealers who lost works or set us up in competitive hierarchies with each other for their favours, or spent fortunes on making works that forever sat in back sheds waiting futily for someone to recognise their great worth.
Such a waste of materials – I sometimes thought to myself ‘this would pay for a house for someone’.
My idea had been to purchase a small avenue of eucalypts somewhere but then this actual house came up.
On other occasions I am reminded of the way Grotowski, the Polish Theatre director who, with his company, created ‘poor theatre’ that transformed how we thought of our own approaches to artmaking.
This was further heightened when, after his visit to Melbourne in the 70s, he became even more rigorous in his approach, opening a space in Italy to performances where the only audiences also became the performers – a theatre of participation that always began with the floor being scrubbed in preparation.
Rehearsing Catastrophe: A Distraction that Got Out of Hand
About the Ark in Avoca – then elsewhere
First there was the Avoca event. This was preceeded by:
The good idea (we were in the middle of a terrible drought, Watford House sits on a flood-plain, Ararat is the next major town to the west…)
The council meeting – where I explained that I wanted to invite everyone in town to bring their pets – to create a whole-town performance that rehearsed catastrophe. The councillors were unimpressed. You’ll never get a permit one dourly remarked. Right then. If that’s the case, we’ll dress up as animals was my spontaneous response.
So that’s what happened. For The Ark in Avoca, 120 people turned up, dressed as animals and marched in twos into a Watford House transformed into an ark (large-scale projection) with animals already on board (interior projections) and intermittent thunder and lightning.
Then there was The Ark in Sydney and hundreds more volunteered to dress in animal costumes and queue in front of the prow of an ark-like boat over 7 weeks.
Then the was An Ark for Somerset, where this happened again. Over 5 freezing winter nights, hundreds of volunteers dragged noisy wheelie suitcases down the main street of Bath to the Holburne Museum that had become an ark…
Then there was An Ark for Mons in Belgium…
The Water Problem
What water problem?
Do you mean the underground tank problem?
Do you mean the flood problem?
Do you mean the problem with the watery artwork in Vietnam? Do you mean the problem of pool opening hours?
Do you mean the de-sal plant problem and the cost of watering vegetables in summer?
Do you mean the changing rainfall pattern?
I mean...Are we talking too much water or not enough?
On Mending the House — A Major Diversion
The builder’s report said that the house was ‘beyond repair’. That it should be bulldozed...
A very defeatist attitude I remember thinking at the time... And I was right.
All it needed was:
Redesigning the garden – and then recreating it.
Story of a Chinese Heritage
There is a Chinese funerary burner and several grave markers in the Avoca cemetery. There they are, in the far corner, the grave markers covered with little metal cages to stop vandalism.
And there is Toby Bowen, the restumper from Maryborough (whose brother looked Chinese)
And Wayne Shay, the expert grader operator (who spoke of his grandfather walking from Robe and whose surname I only then realised was, of course, Chinese)
And my fantasy of the Middle Kingdom since childhood that meant I spent time there shortly after it opened to the West… finding these elements in this little town was like becoming an archaeologist of heritage.
And the thing about originality, China and the Woman Warrior… (she is here on the wall, a fine watercolour, purchased in China with some difficulty and immediately replaced in the gallery by an identical one… ) perhaps I should have been horrified but she is now a reminder ont only of a woman’s power, but also of the West’s obsession with originality as being about exclusive ownership.
Gertrude Stein on the Weather
Saint Odile said that the world would go on and that there
would come the worst war of all and the fire would be thrown
down from the heavens and there would be freezing and heating and rivers running with blood and at last there would be winning by the enemy and everybody would say and how could they be so strong
239 Gertrude Stein
From Prediction Pieces 6
What will they dream of next?
The rumour is that the hole in the sky
Will continually increase in size, letting in more
And more heat. We will no longer need winter clothes.
Fancy that. No more winters.
Whatever will they dream of next?
Some Notes on the Pencil Pine
There is a very handsome stand of Pencil Pines on the other side of the bridge on the road to Ararat, beside the river. Noel said that it was where the town baths used to be. I presumed he meant that this is where people would go to wash.
They can be found too at the local cemetery and in my memories of Italy and the Mediterranean. Pencil Pines seem so tied to the past and European longings… to grief so the history of them makes clear.
Perhaps this is why Pencil Pines have featured in many of the artworks that have been made…
Noel speaks of them in a video portrait, they are the subject of several photographs and they became the focus of a work for ‘Treatment’ when I discovered a line of them beside a road, fronting an overgrown vestigial forest…the remains of a little town no longer there.
In early 2020 they were planted in the front garden to lessen the afternoon glare,
On Cupressus Sempervirens and Grief
Cupressus Sempervirens (the pencil pine) is an evergreen conifer native to the eastern Mediterranean region including southern Turkey, Croatia, Albania, Greece, northeast Libya, western Syria, Cyprus, northern Egypt, Lebanon, Israel, Malta, Italy and Iran.
No wonder it is an international symbol of grief. It has stood there, upright, through centuries of war.
The tree’s main references to grief however, come from a story by Ovid.
The Roman poet writes of a young prince named Kyparissos, from Keos, who was loved by the Greek gods for his beauty. After accidentally killing Apollo’s favourite stag with his javelin, Kyparissos was distraught and prayed to Apollo to ‘grieve for eternity’. He was then transformed into a cypress tree.
According to Ania, however, the ‘stag’ was actually the young man’s male lover. He so loved him he couldn’t contain the feeling and killed him.
He then asked Apollo to allow him to grieve forever.
So, when next I see an image of a Tuscan hillside, with its ochre farmhouse and profile of a solitary pencil pine, I will understand it differently.
No longer merely a hollow elegance, this and every siting of pencil pine will bring a potent image of passion and pain that, through the tree’s very presence, draws the past into this moment.
What then of the grief necessarily attached to the history of Eucalypts and saltbush you may well ask.
From Walking with Pencil Pines, Lyndal Jones
Treatment Exhibition 2017, Werribee Treatment Farm
From Jonathan Miller
Charles Darwin spent four years sailing around the world, collecting, describing, collating, in order to discover what was under his nose at home.
He had to shift his frame of reference in order to make new connections with information that was so familiar it was invisible.
Jonathan Miller and Borin Van Loon 1982 Darwin for Beginners Writers & Readers Publishing Cooperative, London